President Obama gave college affordability a prominent place in his domestic agenda during his annual State of the Union address, calling directly on universities to hold down costs in order to make higher education more accessible to the middle class. He outlined a set of proposals that include threatening universities with a loss of federal money if they are unable to tamp down tuition.
"Let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down," Obama said in his hour-long address. He didn't offer specifics, however, and the blueprint document the White House sent out to accompany the speech didn't get specific either. But advocates expect him to lay out more concrete details in the coming days.
In a speech that emphasized four pillars—manufacturing, energy, worker training, and American values—he advocated for one concrete K-12 policy: He urged states to raise the dropout age to 18. "We also know that when students aren't allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma," he said.
And, he reiterated his call for Congress to approve some version of the DREAM Act, which provides a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who came to the country as children, if they go on to college or the military.
The president actually spent little time recounting his past efforts on K-12 education reform, or his administration's push to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act. And, he didn't even refer to his signature education initiative— Race to the Top—by name.
He said only: "For less than 1 percent of what our nation spends on education each year, we've convinced nearly every state in the country to raise their standards for teaching and learning—the first time that's happened in a generation."
And he stressed the importance of teaching, a key theme he's hit on before.
"Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let's offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones," he said. "In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren't helping kids learn. That's a bargain worth making."
According to a "blueprint" sent out by the White House during the speech, Obama wants to create a new competitive program that will challenge states and districts to work with their teachers and unions to comprehensively reform the teaching profession. This new competition seems to be a twist on and an expansion of the existing Teacher Incentive Fund. It would seek to: reform colleges of education and make these schools more selective; create new career ladders for teachers to become more effective, and ensure that earnings are tied more closely to performance; and, establish more leadership roles and responsibilities for teachers in running schools.
The competition would also seek to improve professional development and time for collaboration among teachers; create evaluation systems based on multiple measures, rather than just test scores; and, reshape tenure to raise the bar, protect good teachers, and promote accountability.
This proposal aside, the focus of Obama's education agenda in the coming year seems to be on college affordability.
Obama's call to withhold federal funding from colleges that don't do a good job of holding down their tuition costs met with mixed reaction from lawmakers on the education committees.
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who oversees the House subcommittee that deals with higher education, said that shouldn't be the job of the U.S. Department of Education.
"I don't believe the federal government has any business being involved in education," she said in an interview. And she took exception to the president's description of education programs as workforce 'training.'"
"You train your dog," she said. "You educate people."
Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., who has a long record on postsecondary issues, is also unsure whether withholding federal aid from universities is a good way to go. "I'm not sure it's workable, or the right way to go," he said. He was much more enthusiastic about Obama's proposal to hold down student loan interest rates, which he said has a chance of passing the education committee, if the administration can pinpoint "the right pay-fors" to cover the cost.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., the former Denver schools chief and a leader on K-12 issues, was more enthusiastic about the package of proposals. "Incentivizing institutions to be more efficient is entirely appropriate," he said. But he's anxious for more details on the proposal.
Controlling College Costs
While putting responsibility on colleges and universities, Obama also wants states to do their part and spend more on higher education. And, he has an assignment for Congress, too.
"Congress needs to stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July. Extend the tuition tax credit we started that saves millions of middle-class families thousands of dollars," he said. "And give more young people the chance to earn their way through college by doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five years."
Obama also called for community colleges to partner with local businesses to help create jobs.
College affordability is not a new theme for the administration, which has already taken a number of steps to make it easier for students to cover the cost of college, including simplifying college-aid forms, boosting the maximum Pell Grant from $4,731 to $5,550 and scrapping the Federal Family Education Loan Program, which used subsidized private lenders, in favor of direct government loans. And it has implemented income-based repayment plans, which make it easier for graduates to repay their loans.
But there has been backlash. Republicans have criticized the administration for raising Pell Grants too quickly, bringing the program under enormous financial pressure as more students seek post-secondary education to boost their skills. In fact, in the most recent budget agreement, lawmakers made some big changes to the program's eligibility requirements, including slashing the number of semesters students can receive the grants from 18 to 12.
Both of the country's major teachers' unions—who are very important to the Democratic base in such a key election year—praised the speech overall. And they really liked Obama's call for an end to "teaching to the test."
"We appreciate the president's call to support teachers and to stop teaching to the test," said Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, in a statement. "Teachers and educators are eager to work with the Obama administration on ideas to strengthen the profession of teaching and help all students succeed."
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten echoed those sentiments.
"Obama also made clear tonight what America's teachers have long understood: We can't test our way to a middle class; we must educate our way to a middle class. The overemphasis on testing has led to narrowing of the curriculum, rather than creating a path to critical thinking and problem solving," she said in a statement.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who many fellow Republicans wanted to see run for president, delivered the GOP response, hammering Obama for leading a "big and bossy" government that's built on the backs of middle-class Americans and is dragging down the economy. However, he had two bits of praise for the president: one, for killing Osama bin Laden, and the second, for "bravely backing long overdue changes in public education." Although Daniels did not cite specifics, the president has made some policies that Republicans often support—such as expanding charter schools and revamping teacher evaluations—central to his Race to the Top competition.
Last year, Obama used the State of the Union speech to call on Congress to renew the ESEA. But the administration doesn't like either of the two proposals lawmakers have put out so far—including a bipartisan bill that passed the Senate education committee last fall, and a draft proposal released earlier this month by U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said that the administration's waiver package is stronger on accountability than either of those proposals.
Michele McNeil contributed to this report.
Photo: President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Jan. 24. Listening in back are Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner, right.